From Iceland — A New Worldview

A New Worldview

Published January 12, 2007

A New Worldview

Discussing the impact of global warming from the perspective of environmental planning with Trausti Valsson
“It seemed that whenever I wanted to discuss global warming, people would start discussing weather changes, or changes in vegetation,” says Trausti Valsson, a professor of planning at the University of Iceland. Valsson has recently published a book called How the World Will Change with Global Warming. “I am a planner, and I wanted to do see what this meant from the perspective of environmental planning,” Valsson says about his book.
There is an increasing agreement among scientists that global warming will force major changes in our way of life. According to the most pessimistic predictions, it is a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. Floods, droughts, hurricanes and other climate-induced disasters will ravage the planet, making large parts of it uninhabitable. Others remain sceptical towards the extent of the effects, and although no one has yet been able to demonstrate with accuracy what specifically those effects will be, the general consensus is that something is about to change. Says Valsson: “We are likely to see droughts in areas that had plenty of water a few years ago, while other areas, such as Central and Eastern Europe will experience much more rain and flooding, a good example is the flooding of Prague, three years ago.”
The field of environmental planning will be greatly affected by global warming and surprisingly little has been published on the subject. “As an environmental planner, my work consists of gathering all sorts of data from various scientific fields and incorporating that data into environmental planning. There was a time when natural conditions were not given such a high priority in environmental planning. Now, the goal is to design with nature,” He explains when asked what prompted him to write the book, and continues:
“When an area is under development, the first step is to contact a meteorologist to ask for a report on meteorological data for the area. Then you ask geologists to supply data for the area’s geology. All this data is then mapped out and you make a decision on where roads should be built, where schools should be placed, etc. based on that data,” Valsson explains. “In the book, I try to take the same approach, except I am doing it on a meta-scale.”
The problem with this approach is that the data is mostly based on empirical evidence gathered in the past, while the effects of global warming are still mostly in the future, and therefore, a little less empirical. The book is mostly based on a recent report by the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee, called the ACIA report (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Report).
Fundamental Changes
Valsson’s interest in climate change was first sparked during his Ph.D. studies at UC Berkeley during the mid-eighties. A professor pointed out that changes in climate might lead to changes in sea level. Valsson has been examining the possibility since.
“Climate change will alter some of the founding principles of planning, not only globally, but also locally,” Valsson states. There are areas in downtown Reykjavík that are extremely vulnerable to the rising sea level and it is likely that sea will flood some parts of the city on high tides. As the climate gets warmer, more energy builds up in the aerospace, resulting in more energy in the weather, higher wind speeds and more evaporation, causing more rain. “When planning and developing areas near the coastline, this should be taken into account. It is necessary to build flood levees and harbour constructions higher than is commonly done have been doing, as scientists predict that the sea level will rise anywhere from 50-90 centimetres in this century,” Valsson offers. In Iceland, some of these precautionary steps have already been taken. According to recent regulation changes, harbour construction must now be built 50 cm higher above sea level than previous requirements.
Bridging the Gap
Frequently, meteorologists and natural scientists warn us about climate change and how it will affect different groups. Mostly, these warnings are directed at politicians. “In some ways, I am trying to bridge the gap between these two sides,” Valsson says. “I am trying to put this vision in plain terms and show what the effects will be. It will help politicians and policymakers to make plans for the future, such as where to build roads or where to build levees.”
Valsson does not direct his focus on how we can prevent global warming. “Years ago, when the first reports started to show that the climate was warming, the first reaction from politicians was to stop global warming. They said, “We will agree to not increase fuel emission,” and several attempts have been made to reach that goal, such as the Kyoto Protocol. A fourth of the world nations have ratified the Kyoto protocol, mostly developed industrial nations that have reached a development level where they can move away from polluting industry. It is easy for them to say this, but it is more difficult to force less developed countries, such as China and India, to meet these standards. I have reached a point where I say, ‘Let’s try to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses as much as possible.’ But like many others, I believe that we will not be able to prevent global warming, at least not without a major scientific breakthrough in the energy field,” he says. Instead, he has chosen to accept global warming as a fact, and focus on how we should deal with the consequences.
Environmental Refugees
“My starting point is that global warming will continue as predicted or even exceed predictions. Then we will be forced to view this problem in a completely different perspective. That is, we will have to start to prepare for the coming changes.” Valsson claims that the immense impact of global warming will change our fundamental ideas about the world. He equates the changes to a “paradigm shift” as explained by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which will force us to adapt a whole new worldview.
“Climate change is not a new geological phenomenon. There have been warm eras, and cold eras before. In the past, animals, humankind included, have dealt with this change by migration. North or south depending on whether it is getting warmer or cooler. This was not a big problem for a society of hunters and gatherers. In the present however, a climate change induced migration is very difficult because we have adopted a static society. As recently as the end of the 19th century, cold winters forced many people in northern Europe to migrate to America, but then there was no border control. Today, the situation is that most nations try to keep their borders closed.” Valsson claims that to deal with this problem we will need to move away from the this static worldview where states are closed off by borders and look at the world in a more integrated way, even going so far to claim that this could be the end of the nation-state.
“We will have “environmental refugees”, something akin to political refugees. What other options will there be for people living in uninhabitable areas, other than migration? If our part of the world is inhabitable, we will have to accept refugees. How else are we going to solve this? John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a good example. It is a story of people driven from their homes in Oklahoma by terrible droughts. They move to California in search of a better life, only to find roadblocks and landowners trying to defend their land. It is nothing new that people are forced to move because of climate changes, but the scale we can expect now is unprecedented,” Valsson says.
The Hub of the Oil Wheel
According to Valsson, our patterns of habitation are not the only thing we can expect to change. As the polar ice caps melt, new channels of transportation will open, especially in the north. If the arctic ice retreats it would open a substantially shorter shipping lane between the North Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, through the Bering Strait.
This would put Iceland smack in the middle of what would be one of the most commonly travelled shipping routes in the world, and in Valsson’s opinion, it would be a natural selection for a transship and depot harbour for oil tankers to North America and Northern Europe from Siberia’s rich oil fields as well as from oil reservoirs in the Arctic Ocean that are considered to become accessible with global warming. The Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs is already exploring this possibility and recently released a report called North Meets North: Navigation and the Future of the Arctic, where this option is examined in detail.
While the prospect of huge oil tankers roaming the ocean around Iceland is certainly not a vision everyone endorses, we might not have much say in the matter. Says Valsson: “Anywhere beyond three nautical miles of the coastline is international shipping lanes and beyond our control. But Iceland’s location would likely make it the ‘hub of the wheel,’ a distribution centre.”
As contradictory as it sounds, the effects of global warming will make oil, the number one cause of global warming, more easily accessible. “The disappearance of the ice presents danger. It was not presumed possible to access these oil reservoirs before. The belief that the present oil wells will soon run dry is what has been pressuring nations to search for alternative fuels sources. The danger now is that the pressure to find alternative means of energy is not as much,” Valsson admits, adding, “This is your future. I’m too old fashioned to like it, but what should you do? Stick your head in the sand?”
Trausti Valsson’s book is available at most Icelandic book stores, from and free for download in .pdf form from the author’s website:
Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Report (ACIA): Available at:
North Meets North: Navigation and the Future of the Arctic: Available at:

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!